After a lot of debate, and advise from my good friend Nancy, I decided to have Duke cremated. Trish sat this decision out. I had my last dog, Paco, cremated, and the tin canister that holds his ashes, that sits on the shelf in the closet of our home office, still creeps her out a little.
But, Trish did agree with me that talking with Ella about cremation would be too difficult to explain to Ella. We didn’t want to scare her. And we didn’t know how in the world to do it.
So I was surprised when Ella asked me as I tucked her into bed the night Duke died when she said, “Dad, you know your old dog? What was his name?
“Yes, Paco. You know Paco? Can I see his bones?”
There are occasions when I suspect Trish has said something when she really hasn’t, and I walk through a door Ella has opened into a conversation I could have avoided. So I probed a little bit.
“Paco’s ashes? What do you mean?”
“Mom said you have his ashes, that he was crematated.”
“Cremated. Can I see his ashes?”
Ella has this way of finding out information with a sideways into a line of questioning, like drawing a triangle — establish a baseline, ask a related question about 90 degrees in a different direction (that’s the set up), then asking a final question, the answer of which, she has already concluded, must return to the base. It’s a skill that I acquired only after I began reporting. By asking about Paco’s ashes she knew she was gaining information about Duke.
Trish later told me that Ella had interrogated her about Duke, post-death, for two days, and finally she caved. Trish supplied a mixed-metaphorical explanation, something about dinosaur bones, to explain what a skeleton is, or what bones are, and the ashes she and Ella have smudged on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, to explain, I guess, ashes. It confuses me still.
Now I was hearing questions like “why will we keep his ashes?” and “how do they burn the body?”
I did the best I could. On the burning issue, I was as honest. I told her I didn’t really think about that much how it was done. I tried to explain that when we die, our body stops working — our lungs stop breathing, our hearts stop pumping — and we stop feeling pain. But our spirits live in memories. Whatever happens to our bodies doesn’t cause pain (I hope!). Duke was a great dog, and I saved his ashes, which were more like coarse sand with chips of broken coral, so he would always be with us, and what I liked to think about most are the memories we would have of Duke and the photos that helped us remember him, and that would keep him alive in our hearts.
The day I took Duke to the vet Ella was, I’m sure, confused. Her dog was alive, but he was soon going to be dead, and I was taking him to the vet to make that happen. I picked up Duke, who had lost so much weight his thick, soft fur felt like a loose bag around his bones, and placed him in the back of my 4-Runner. Trish said goodbye, and I wanted Ella to say bye, but she resisted. But I insisted, and I’m glad I did. She went from angry and confused to a child simply saying hugging and kissing one of her friends. I knew, from experience, that she eventually might regret not saying goodbye and expressing her love.
Ella’s bedtime curiosity was, for the time being, satisfied. Over the next several days, though, she wanted to talk about Duke, about his being dead. She was still trying to connect, I think, his physical absence with our emotional connection.